Climbing Training Performance Areas

7 minute read

The five most important training aspects for climbing are finger strength, muscular power, body strength, aerobic endurance, and power endurance. Each can be broadly categorised as having either a neuromuscular (strength) objective or metabolic (energy) objective. A third category – cardiorespiratory (heart and lungs) – exists, although this is more relevant to endurance sports such as swimming, running  or cycling, and is less relevant to climbers.

No matter what training plan you follow, each exercise protocol will be targeted at one or more of these, and the plan overall will contain a mixture of all of them.


Neuromuscular (Strength)

Important Concepts

Strength is developed through hypertrophy and recruitment. The types and extent of hypertrophy are related mainly to the number of repetitions, applied load, and time under tension (1)(2). Recruitment improvement is related mainly to the applied load (3)

Hypertrophy is the enlargement of muscle cells. There are actually two types, sacroplasmic and myofibrillar. Sacroplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in volume of muscle fluid, without strength gain, normally achieved through higher repetition exercises. As climbers, we’re more interested in myofibrillar hypertrophy, the addition of proteins, which is trained using higher loads at lower repetions. This is how strength is added without significant increases in heavy bulk. Hypertrophy is typically a slow process, with a similarly slow detraining time.

Recruitment is the engagement of muscle fibers by the motor neurones that control them. When a muscle contracts, this is the combined action of many motor neurones contracting many muscle fibers – overall muscle strength is therefore a function of the number of fibers recruited. The aim of recruitment training is to increase the maximum number of fibers that can be recruited. Recruitment can be enhanced quickly, but detraining also occurs quickly.


Finger Strength

AKA grip strength is often considered the gold standard in climbing performance, it’s required for every type of climbing (no-hands slabs excluded!) and is the enabler for hard moves – if you can’t hold the rock, you can’t move up.

If you want to tick hard boulders or get through the crux on your sport project then you’re going to need strong fingers.

Gains are often hard-won, making this a long-term training objective. It takes many years to reach our genetic potential, but the good news is you can keep progressing all the time.

finger strength

Just to add a little more complexity, you have to train specific grip types also. Most climbing finger strength training exercises are isometric (single static position) and the largest strength gains from an isometric exercise are within 20 degrees of the trained position (4).

be careful though! Fingers are easily injured, especially for those who have not trained much or climbed much before. Tendon and pulley injuries must be avoided with a careful and appropriate training plan of progressive overload – and treated with the utmost seriousness if they occur. Never train in pain!

Common Exercises

  • Hangboard repeaters
  • Hangboard max hangs
  • Bouldering at redpoint limit

Body Strength

The science of body strength is the same as finger strength, the targeted muscles groups are the difference. It’s worth separating the two categories, as the proportions you train them in will vary depending on your climbing goals, and the exercises used for each are very different.

Sometimes an unpopular idea for climbers, training overall body strength, mainly upper-body, is still important. Done correctly, training will result in minimal body weight gains, and most can be trained using only a barbell, some with no equipment at all.

body strength

Among the key areas to train: Leg strength is important to lift your body from a high footed position with minimal holds. Core strength helps you take weight with your feet instead of your hands, and move accurately in overhanging sequences. Chest strength assists in wide-armed compression moves. Lat (mid-upper back) strength is essential to pulling movement.

A training plan should also target antagonist muscles, which helps performance (5) as well as injury prevention (6).

Common Exercises

  • Deadlift
  • Bench press
  • Squat
  • Overhead press

Power

Power is the time component of your strength – while general strength is measured as a maximum force (e.g. hanging an extra 10% of your bodyweight on a hangboard) – power is the product of strength and how quickly that strength can be recruited.

Some of the key ways this enables our climbing are the ability to do large dynamic movements (dynos), and the ability to latch a hold suddenly (contact strength).

Training power as well as strength has a significant benefit over training one aspect only (7)

power

Dynos are sometimes necessary when the space between holds is too large to reach statically  (slow and controlled), or it’s not possible to maintain balance while doing that, forcing us to lunge for them suddenly. If you are not able to recruit your strength quickly, your ability to complete the move may be limited.

The key muscle groups to train for power are forearm flexors (muscles that close your fingers), arms, and upper body. The most popular tool for this is the campus board, although the strenuous nature of this means that is not for beginners. There are other power training protocols involving pulls and/or weights.

Common Exercises

  • Campus ladders
  • Campus bumps

Metabolic – (Energy)

Important Concepts

There are 3 energy systems that your muscles use; adenosine triphosphate – phosphocreatine ATP-PC, glycolytic, and aerobic. Each has a different use, advantages, and limitations. The main characteristics we’re interested in are their effective duration, and maximum energy release rate.

Let’s look at them briefly, and get to know the signs for which system we’re mainly using at any time.

The ATP-CP system use ATP which is stored in your muscles. It provides energy the fastest and is used for sudden high intensity movement, we’ll use it for movements or holds that need maximum effort. The available energy only lasts a couple of seconds, and takes 2-5 minutes to replenish. The duration can’t be extended by training, but the energy output can.

When you are reaching the limit of the ATP-CP system you will experience rapid loss of strength with no other sensation (except perhaps panic!). 

The Glycolytic system converts glucose stored in your muscles, liver and blood into ATP. It provides energy about half as quickly as the ATP-CP system, and is used for medium-high intensity efforts such as a complete boulder sequence, or the crux on your sport route. Most of this energy will be depleted by 60 seconds of consistent effort. The duration can’t be extended significantly by training, but the energy output can.

When you are reaching the limit of the glycolytic system you will feel the familiar pump –  the sensation of hydrogen ions collecting in your muscles. Strength will reduce over about 30 seconds.

The Oxidative system uses oxygen to convert stored energy into ATP. Initially using glycogen, then fat, then protein (moving to the next source as the current is depleted). This is the slow-burn system, used for easy-moderate movements such as long sport climbing sequences between cruxes. It lasts for hours, but produces energy at only a quarter the rate of the ATP-CP system. The duration and energy output can be extended by training.

When you are climbing completely within your oxidative energy system, you won’t feel any pump and can continue indefinitely.

(8)


Aerobic Endurance

Aerobic endurance is the capacity of your oxidative system to provide energy. While gains in strength increase your ability to consume energy, they don’t enhance your ability to produce that energy in the first place – you wouldn’t build a car with a big engine and a tiny gas tank.

Training aerobic endurance increases the capacity of this energy system which is very important, since it reduces your reliance on the other two energy systems which both deplete quickly. As your level of aerobic endurance increases, you’re able to climb more difficult sequences without needing the other two energy systems.

aerobic endurance

This is really important because you can save energy for harder sequences when you get to them. Your aerobic system also contributes to recovery – you’ll recover faster if you enhance this energy system.

Common Exercises

  • Aerobic Respiration and Capillarity (ARC) 
  • X on Y off climbing intervals (slightly higher intensity than ARC)

Power Endurance

Power endurance is the capacity of glycolytic energy system to provide energy. The importance of this available energy is as high as that for aerobic endurance, the same analogies apply.

Increasing the capacity of this energy system allows us to complete boulder problems, and sport climb cruxes with multiple movements – or any other climbing scenario which requires a  moderate-high level of effort for up to 60 seconds.

power endurance

Common Exercises

  • Hangboard repeaters
  • Foot-on campusing

ClimbingCoach targets all of these areas in the quantities and proportions that are right for you. You’ll see these colours and symbols throughout the app as a helpful guide.


References

  1. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(10), 2857–2872. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
  2. Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W. D., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J. R., Hector, A. J., … Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of Physiology590(2), 351–362. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200
  3. Sale, D. G. (1987). Influence of exercise and training on motor unit activation. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews15, 95–151. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3297731
  4. Knapik, J. J., Mawdsley, R. H., & Ramos, M. U. (1983). Angular Specificity and Test Mode Specificity of Isometric and Isokinetic Strength Training. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy5(2), 58–65. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.1983.5.2.58
  5. Burke, D. G., Pelham, T. W., & Holt, L. E. (1999). The Influence of Varied Resistance and Speed of Concentric Antagonistic Contractions on Subsequent Concentric Agonistic Efforts. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research13(3), 193–197. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4287(1999)0132.0.CO;2″>https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4287(1999)013<0193:TIOVRA>2.0.CO;2
  6. Croisier, J.-L., Ganteaume, S., Binet, J., Genty, M., & Ferret, J.-M. (2008). Strength Imbalances and Prevention of Hamstring Injury in Professional Soccer Players. The American Journal of Sports Medicine36(8), 1469–1475. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546508316764
  7. National Strength & Conditioning Association (U.S.), G. R., Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Proulx, C. M., & Johnson, R. L. (2000). Journal of strength and conditioning research.JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING RESEARCH(Vol. 14). National Strength and Conditioning Association. https://www.tib.eu/en/search/id/BLSE%3ARN075496667/Short-Term-Performance-Effects-of-High-Power-High/
  8. Bompa, T. O., & Buzzichelli, C. (n.d.). Periodization : theory and methodology of training. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=2f9QDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=atp+cp+glycolytic+oxidative&ots=rwO-TBt2Ar&sig=9fO08MiIjihMAtelYGDShWjVOhE

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